(March 28, 2014 / JNS)
Growing up in Newton, Mass., I came to appreciate the generous services that Boston’s Combined Jewish Philanthropies (CJP) provides. During the past three years, studying at two different universities, I have also discovered the key role that Hillel International plays on college campuses. I care about Hillel so deeply that I co-founded “Safe Hillel,” which organizes support for the National Hillel Guidelines for Campus Israel Activities in order to counter the encroachment of anti-Zionism into the Hillel home.
I treasure the fact that Hillel creates a safe and open space for students to celebrate Judaism. That’s why I was horrified to discover a photo of a group of Harvard College students posed smiling at the grave of Yasser Arafat, a most vile man who ordered the murder of so many Jewish men, women and children. The trip, Harvard Israel Trek 2014, was sponsored by CJP, Harvard Hillel, and several individuals and family foundations.
Barry Shrage, president of CJP, recently told past and present board members, “While the dialogue with Palestinian leaders was essential to the purposes and success of the mission the photo at the grave was deeply offensive. Yasser Arafat was a vicious terrorist who caused the death of thousands of innocents but in addition, his hatred of Israel caused him to destroy a promising peace process and the hopes and dreams of Israelis and Palestinians alike for peace between our peoples.” Shrage added that the photo “never should have happened and must never be repeated” and was under the false impression that his position was “a view that is clearly shared by our student leaders as well.”
One would think that condemnation of the photo and visit to the grave of a mass-murderer would be universal, both from organizers and participants of the trip. Unfortunately, Hillel International has refused to condemn the Arafat photo on two occasions. When reached by the Truth Revolt website for comment on March 19, a Hillel spokesman, David Eden, said the photo was “causing understandable concern” but that the image “is not what this trip is about,” before attempting to contextualize the photo with the other pro-Israel content of the trip. When Truth Revolt reached out to Hillel on March 21, the organization declined further comment.
It is revolting that Hillel International refuses to condemn a photo of smiling college students standing next to the tombstone of a mass-murderer and the godfather of modern terrorism. But what is more disturbing is that the Harvard Israel Trek leaders continue to claim the visit and photo was acceptable.
Six of the Israel Trek leaders published an article in the Times of Israel that was originally titled “No apologies for visiting Arafat’s grave,” before the title was switched to “Yes, we visited Arafat’s grave.” The leaders stated, “Whether we like or not, Yasser Arafat is important to the Palestinian narrative, and as educators committed to an honest exploration of these issues we could not afford to deviate from Trek policy that encouraged students to document and share their experiences with their respective communities. We are saddened and sorry that a photo was taken out of context, causing pain to people who we love and respect.”
Rather than publicly stating, “We messed up,” the students doubled down on their support of the visit, claiming the trip to the grave of arch-terrorist Arafat is a necessary part of truly being pro-Israel. One critic opined in the comments section of the Israel Trek leaders’ article, “Would you Boston students dare visit the grave of the Boston Marathon bomber and pose smiling at his grave, as a way of learning his narrative to understand why he murdered and mangled men, women, and children at a running race?”
One Trek leader attacked the Director of Aish Boston, Rabbi Chananel Weiner, the first Boston Jewish leader to speak out against the photo, writing that “sadly, the Jewish
people can often be our own worst enemy, and your hurtful and irresponsible attacks
have caused great harm to the Jewish community, to the best Harvard student leaders working to promote Israel on campus, and to me. I hope you are satisfied.”
In truth, the photo next to Arafat’s grave was an attack. An attack on American values, an attack on Jewish values, and a disgraceful assault on the families and memories of victims of anyone affected by terrorism against the Jewish state. It is deeply saddening to see that Hillel International has refused to condemn the visit and that the Harvard College students are proud of it. I’m unsure which is worse.
Daniel Mael is native of Newton, Mass., and a junior at Brandeis University. He is a co-founder of Safe Hillel and a reporter for Truth Revolt (www.truthrevolt.org).
This article first appeared in The Jewish Advocate of Boston.